Yugoslav Guest Workers Torn Between Germany and Home | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 07.12.2008
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Yugoslav Guest Workers Torn Between Germany and Home

It's been 40 years since the first guest workers from the former Yugoslavia arrived in West Germany. Many have created families in Germany, but as retirees, they often return home.

Black and white photo taken in 1972 of guestworkers from Jugoslavia at Frankfurt's main train station

The first wave of guest workers arrived in West Germany 40 years this December.

Pavle Konopek, now 63, is a self-employed entrepreneur. In the spring of 1969, he arrived from the north Serbian region of Srem to work in the German city of Solingen.

In the former Jugoslavia, he was trained as a machinist, but he studied electrical engineering in Germany. His wife also came with him, and his children and grandchildren continue to live in his adopted homeland.

"I've never had negative experiences here. To the contrary, I have a huge circle of friends and acquaintances in Germany," laughed Konopek.

"I arrived in a foreign country, but the experience was never unpleasant. There's quite a difference between my old and new abode. Serbia will always be my mother country. But home is wherever I hang my hat."

Answering a German ad for guest workers

Konopek was one of nearly 1.2 million people classified in Germany as former Yugoslavians, according to the federal ministry of statistics. Most Yugoslav migrants responded to newspaper advertisements inviting guest workers to come. West Germany had sealed an agreement with the former socialist country on Oct. 12, 1968 to allow the entry of much needed labor to boost its Wirtschaftswunder.

Guest worker family from Jugoslovia having a picnic on grassy knoll near an autobahn

About 1.2 million workers and their families come from the former Yugoslavia

Forty years ago this December, the agreement between Belgrade and the former German capital of Bonn was ratified and the first wave of migrants arrived on Feb. 4, 1969. The first so-called guest workers ever to arrive Germany, were the Italians in 1955 until the flow from Mediterranean rim countries, such as Turkey, Greece and Portugal, officially ended in 1973.

Thirty-five years ago, Savo Pejovic arrived with a dozen fellow workers from Pljevlja in Montenegro, landing in the small northern town of Soltau, south of Hamburg. He was 26 and goal-oriented. After seven years of hard work at various jobs and further education, he became a trained mechanic.

"When I first arrived, I thought Deutschmarks would fall from the trees", said the father of two.

"But it was different from what I expected. One couldn't return home anymore and we had to think about adapting to life here. Still it was much easier then than it is today to find work, to switch jobs and move to another city," he said.

Well-trained workforce

Nearly 700,000 Serbs, Croatians or Bosnians came to West Germany for work between 1968 and the disintegration of the former Yugoslavia in 1991, but many have not stayed on.

In the first two decades of their arrival, the former Yugoslav guest workers managed to remit an estimated 15 billion euros to their families back home.

As the German economy was growing by leaps and bounds, the guest workers made good use of their skills and training, according to Leo Monz, head of the foreign workers' division of the German Confederation of Trade Unions.

But do German politicos and businesses appreciate the contributions made by the "guest workers"?

"We would have liked to see more recognition for them", said Monz. "Maybe there's still a way to let them know that we recognize the contributions they have made to our country".

First generation of pensioners

The first wave of Yugoslav guest workers are retiring now. Many plan to spend the remainder of their years in Germany, where they have created families.

"We must think about how they can tap into their social security benefits in both Germany and Yugoslavia, so that they can feel at home in both countries", said Monz.

Elderly home where a young man is serving an old man his meal

The first generation of immigrants are now pensioners

"We need to work out our social system in caring for the elderly and ensure that there are caregivers who speak German and other languages, and have been immersed in other cultures," he added.

Some of the former guest workers do return to their home country. Milan Stanojevic started out as an assembly worker in the automobile industry and ended his career as a labor mediator in Gelsenkirchen's industrial belt. In 1970, he left his small village in Bosnia-Herzegovina as a twenty year old with great hopes.

"I came with a small suitcase that contained a hand-knitted jumper, an old pair of shoes, socks and two cans of tinned food. When the train left the platform, it dawned on me that I was on a long journey. I became nostalgic for the parents and friends I left behind.

"But I wasn't alone. We numbered 2,500 altogether, but listlessness set in whenever I turned on the radio or telly, or when I went to sleep. I can still see the images in my mind today: My parents, the family home, tombstones at the grave site.

"I only wanted to be away for one year, buy myself a moped in Germany and go back. It's too bad that after 38 years, I never got that moped. But I did manage to renovate the house that once belonged to my parents".

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  • Date 07.12.2008
  • Author Filip Slavkovic (df)